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W. Edwards Deming, The Quality Guru, Said that Performance Appraisals Were an Organizational Evil that Should be Abolished. Was He Wrong?

Yes. Deming and others in the quality movement correctly noted that individuals are rarely the responsible parties when quality problems arise. More frequently, poor quality is a function of system breakdowns and bad processes, not individual failures. Deming urged organizations to concentrate on system problems and not human problems. That approach may work well for operations management, but it leads to seriously defective people management procedures.

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Deming made a simple observation: All processes and operations are either within tolerance or they are out of tolerance in a positive or negative direction. That same principle is the one under which performance appraisal operates. An individual’s performance is either that which the organization expects, or it varies in a positive way and exceeds expectations, or it varies in a negative way and fails to meet expectations. Performance appraisal is simply the application of a central idea of the quality movement to the human dimension.

But there is a flaw in applying quality principles to human performance. Quality experts operate on the basis that if operations are performing properly and according to standard, they should be left alone. Attention should be concentrated only on those aspects that vary from the norm. If this notion is applied to human performance, the great majority of workers in an organization will be ignored by the organization because their performance is not out of whack in either a positive or negative direction.

To ensure high quality of products and processes, it may be important to let alone things that are operating properly and concentrate on the exceptions. In managing human performance that approach is a serious mistake. One of the most frequent complaints people have of their organizations is that they get little attention when they do what is expected. Only when they truly excel (which, for most people, is rare) or completely screw up (which also is rare) do they get any attention from the boss.

Performance appraisal forces managers and organizations to focus on the fact that the great majority of employees are doing exactly what the organization expects of them and that the company recognizes and reinforces their contributions.